David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is a film about grief, loneliness, heartache, and the cruelty of time. It tells the story of a married couple played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Their characters remain largely nameless as the film tries to be as personal as possible to each audience member. The story revolves around the ghost of Affleck’s character after he dies unexpectedly. His ghost returns to the home that he and his wife once shared and he silently waits there as time passes and things change all around him.
A Ghost Story is a slow-paced film. It wallows in the stillness of its setting. The camera often lingers for far longer than one would typically expect, and each shot is framed with great intention. Any given shot from the film could be printed and hung on the wall as a work of art. The pacing of the film is almost stream of consciousness in such a way that between the long and drawn out moments there are massive leaps in time. The effect is that as the film goes on, the audience relates more and more to how disoriented the ghost is. His silent confusion and frustration is consistently compelling. It becomes deeply emotional as you watch him, trapped in this home that has become a prison, and unable to truly interact with any of the people around him. Indeed, it is unique in that it is a film about grief that focuses almost entirely on the grief of the deceased.
Lowery shot the film using an almost square-shaped aspect ratio which contributes to the feeling of claustrophobia throughout. This unique visual choice makes the film ideal for theater viewing. The edges of the frame are curved, and Lowery has claimed that the intent was to give A Ghost Story the feeling of a slideshow. This effect is achieved and it adds to the sorrowful nostalgic feeling lingering throughout the film. In addition, this unique framing seems to call back to silent film which is appropriate given the noticeable lack of dialogue. Even when there is spoken dialogue, it’s often unimportant and seems to serve more as background noise, with the notable exception of a monologue given by an eventual resident of the house which seems to reflect Lowery’s own views on existence.
The sound design is ultimately much more dependent on the music. The soundtrack is emotional and often ethereal, setting the tone to the film throughout. It is sorrowful and incredibly powerful in a way that really informs the emotions that Lowery wanted to convey. Affleck’s character was a musician when he was alive, and one particular piece of original music is used to great effect throughout.
Perhaps the most fascinating decision in the film was the portrayal of the ghost itself. Rather than a CGI dependent spirit as we’ve seen in many ghost movies, Lowery elected to go with a simple white sheet with holes for eyes. The effect is a stark simplicity that makes the character more accessible for an audience that wouldn’t be used to sympathizing with a mute ghost. To achieve something of an ethereal effect with the simplistic costume, Lowery shot the ghost at a different frame rate than the human actors.
A Ghost Story is a beautiful and meditative film which is sure to incite deep reflection in its audience. A24 continues to maintain its success in the world of independent cinema as it shows that it is willing to take risks. This film may be too slow for some audiences. However, I have faith that most will be able to dig through its unconventional style and find what lies beneath: a profound and masterful work of art.